By Tessa Dwyer and Jenny Robinson (Monash University and RMIT University)
‘Seeing’ is no simple matter. In fact, researchers from various disciplines from psychology to philosophy still grapple to understand many of the processes and variables involved in this imprecise, catch-all concept. ‘Seeing’ has so many moving parts, as does the relationship between visual attention and visual processing or cognition. This video essay provides an introduction to the eye tracking of moving-image screens that canvasses these complexities, starting with the idea that ‘seeing’ depends upon numerous instances of not-seeing and inattention. We explore this idea in relation to magic films and filmed magic, drawing on concepts from screen theory and psychocinematics.
As Dan North details in Performing Illusions (2005), the influence of magic traditions on the development of early cinema is profound. Magic films hark back to cinema’s earliest roots and are particularly well represented in the prolific output of conjurer and director George Méliès. While magic on screen is quite distinct from magic that unfolds in front of a live, active audience, this difference does not defuse its power or fascination. The magic film constitutes an enduring genre that boasts many recent entrants including Now You See Me (Leterrier, 2013) and sequel Now You See Me 2 (Chu, 2016).
What can eye tracking technology bring to an understanding of screen media and screen culture? Eye tracking is a process whereby eye movements are charted in order to record which parts of the visual field are attended to by audiences, for how long and in which order. Eye tracking also provides a means of drilling down into attention, exploring it as a multi-layered process that involves peripheral pre-viewing, fixations (or resting spots), information encoding and extraction, and saccades (the scanning movements that occur in-between fixations).
For this essay, we collected eye tracking data from twenty-one participants who viewed a short one-minute scene from the first Now You See Me. From this data, we produced heat-mapped footage collating the gaze patterns of all participants and displaying as hottest those areas that were most fixated upon. We also produced inverse footage of this same data. Instead of overlaying the image with heat maps that obscure points of high interest, areas of the screen that were fixated upon remain visible while all else is blackened. Additionally, we produced aggregate gaze plot footage indicating the individuated order and length of each participant’s fixations, differentiated by colour.
Via these varied outputs, this data makes tangible thresholds of seeing and not-seeing. Through eye tracking technology, we pinpoint moments of misdirection, attentional splitting, and lag, connecting these findings to film editing processes described by Arthur P. Shimamura et al. (2014) as “a sort of magician’s sleight-of-hand.” Magicians have long understood the limitations inherent within visual processing, using shortfalls to manipulate and misdirect even the most attentive of audiences. In this video essay, we consider how misdirection, sleight-of-hand, and attentional blindness play out in relation to mediated experiences and screen interfaces.
Of course, there are also blind spots in eye tracking research and technologies. For rigorous eye tracking research, the viewing condition needs to be the same for each participant, yet people experience cinema in a variety of contexts. How would this change their attention? Syncing of the visual scene with the eye tracking device is critical, with any misalignment leading to faulty interpretations of attention lag or objects of fixation. Disparities can even occur between film length and total time in fixations, leaving a gap of time unaccounted for where viewers may be distracted, looking off-screen, searching without fixating, or perhaps searching for peripheral cues.
As Jason Farman (2012) states, “the behind-the-scenes, the off-stage, and the hidden-from-view often serve as the foundations for the perceptive world.” Framing always engenders and depends upon the out-of-frame, whilst “our sense of being-in-the-world is dependent on much of the world not being noticed.” That is, we can only ever gain focus and visual clarity by blocking out or simply not noticing most of our visual field. Pushing ‘against the grain’ of much eye tracking research, this videographic essay plots moments of inattention and forms of blindness to explore the ways in which moving-image screens are at once both seen and unseen.
Farman, Jason(2012). Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media. London and New York: Routledge.
North, Dan (2008). Performing Illusions. London: Wallflower.
Potter, Robert and Paul Bolls (2012). Psychophysiological Measurement and Meaning: Cognitive and Emotional Processing of Media. NY: Routledge.
Shimamura, Arthur P. et al. (2014). ‘Perceiving Movement Across Film Edits: A Psychocinematic Analysis’. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 8.1: 77-80.